Before the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority makes another move that comes back to haunt everyone who depends on aviation in the Lehigh Valley, it should hold off on selling Braden Airpark in Forks Township and give interested parties a reasonable chance to buy it and keep it in operation.
And it wouldn’t hurt for airport officials to show up at a Forks Township Supervisors meeting — to let the people of the township know what’s going on before everything is signed, sealed and delivered.
This week the authority tabled a motion to sell the Braden property, but only by one month. That came after members of the Lehigh Valley General Aviation Association, a group of local pilots, asked for some time to investigate a transfer of ownership that would keep the 80-acre airport in business.
There’s no arguing that the authority, which operates Lehigh Valley International Airport, has big financial problems. They include a $14 million debt and a quick, court-imposed time frame to dispose of it. So the authority is looking to sell whatever assets it can.
But it’s important to remember a few things here, which predate the new management regime at LVIA. The airport authority bought Braden in 1999 in large part to relieve general aviation (small private planes) pressure at LVIA. Now it’s not only reversing itself on that front, but it’s looking to add to development pressures in Forks through a quick fix.
How much debt-relief will LVIA — which is suffering from declining ridership and fewer airline choices — realize from selling Braden? LVIA executive Director Charles Everett says that keeping Braden under authority control means an annual operating loss of $39,000. That’s not a huge budget-buster in the short term. More important, though, is that selling the land might not fetch more than $1 million, according to some estimates tossed around at Tuesday’s meeting.
Almost all of LVIA’s current headache stems from mismanagement — an ill-advised decision to condemn acreage just north of the airport that had been proposed for housing development. That led to a lawsuit and a $26 million court award, of which $14 million is still owed. Before the authority turns the keys on Braden, it should see what it will gain through a sale of 750 acres in Allen, East Allen and Hanover townships, under an agreement announced last month with the Rockefeller Group — a development firm that studied the Braden property but declined to buy it.
Remember, too, that much of the revenue problem at Braden Airpark stems from the fact that the authority insisted on a month-to-month lease renewal with Moyer Aviation, which had operated an aircraft maintenance center and a flight school there. Without a longer-term agreement, Moyer moved its business to Pocono Mountain Municipal Airport.
Selling the Braden property for development without weighing all possible alternatives — and without drawing Forks Township officials and residents into the conversation — is rash and irresponsible. The authority is under court order to erase its debt by 2016. The best way to avoid yet another bad land decision is to use the remaining time to sit down and talk with everyone who has a stake in those 80 acres.